Five NBA players who are quietly having career years

Profile Picture: Ryan Murphy

Ryan Murphy

January 18th, 2022

The NBA is a star-driven league. Stars get the most touches, the biggest contracts, and the most lucrative endorsements.

It should come as no surprise then that perennial All-Stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry have dominated the headlines this season with their spectacular play. And while they certainly deserve the attention, they aren’t the only players who are enjoying sensational campaigns.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover there’s a wealth of unheralded players who are putting up big numbers and having a huge impact just outside of the spotlight. We’ve been watching their movements closely, and have selected five lesser-known NBA players who are quietly having career years.

Jonas Valanciunas (New Orleans Pelicans)

This was supposed to be "The Year of Zion", but an injury to the Pelicans’ golden child has made it "The Year of JV" instead. The affable big man has stepped up in Williamson’s absence and is averaging 18.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game for NOLA. His 29 double-doubles are good for fourth in the league, and he’s even hitting 43% of his three-point attempts just for good measure.

Valanciunas’ career year hasn’t resulted in many wins for the cellar-dwelling Pels yet, but that’s hardly his fault, as New Orleans has been beset by injuries and COVID-19. If – and when – Zion returns this season, the Pelicans will have one of the league’s most fearsome low post tandems.

Jordan Poole (Golden State Warriors)

Many around the league viewed Jordan Poole as little more than a placeholder until Klay Thompson would return to the Warriors, but the 22-year-old shooting guard has become so much more.

Poole averaged 17.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game before Thompson’s return on Jan. 9, and led the Warriors in scoring nine times during that span. His lights-out shooting was a big reason why Golden State raced out to a 24-5 record, and he should continue to bedevil opponents as he spearheads the Warriors' second unit.

Luguentz Dort (Oklahoma City Thunder)

All 30 NBA teams had a chance to draft Luguentz Dort in 2019, and all 30 teams passed on the Montreal native. Some were concerned with the lack of rotation on his shot, while others steered clear because of his perceived dearth of playmaking skills. Three years later, Dort is making them all look foolish.

The 22-year-old Arizona State alum averaged an eye-popping 24.6 points during a five-game stretch from Nov. 10-17, and is second on the Thunder in scoring behind fellow Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. While it’s true that Dort’s offense could use some refinement, he’s more than earned a place in the league thanks to his balls-to-the wall tenacity.

Bobby Portis (Milwaukee Bucks)

Although Portis is already a cult-like figure in Milwaukee following last year’s championship run, his national profile is still relatively low. If you live outside of Cream City, you may not have noticed "Bobby Buckets" is averaging 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game as the team’s de facto center.

The energetic seven-year vet was thrust into the starting lineup on Nov. 7 following an injury to starting pivot Brook Lopez, and hasn’t looked back since. Portis has scored 20 points or more seven times since being included in Coach Bud’s opening lineup, and had one of the finest games of his career on Nov. 24, when he finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds in a win over the Pistons.

Although the Bucks are certainly eager to get Lopez back, Portis has helped to keep them afloat in the meantime with his hustle and vastly improved floor-spacing.

Mo Bamba (Orlando Magic)

Viewed by many as a bust after three uninspired seasons in Orlando, Mo Bamba is finally fulfilling the enormous potential that prompted the Magic to nab him with the sixth pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

The long-limbed 23-year-old is averaging 9.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, and 2.1 blocks per contest, all of which are career highs. The key to Bamba’s increased production has been a more disciplined approach to defense, as he’s cut his fouls per 36 minutes down from 4.8 in his first two seasons to 3.4 in 2021-22. That modest reduction has allowed him to stay on the court longer, and Bamba is making the most of his time by protecting the paint on defense and rolling to the rim for thunderous, stanchion-shaking dunks on offense.